News: A life in music
Story by Kristen Wong
MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII - At dawn on Mount Suribachi, Eddie Ortiz walked in the footsteps of Marines who came before him. On this particular day, however, he did not carry a weapon — he carried a trumpet.
The medically-retired staff sergeant remembers playing the “Marines’ Hymn” with the III Marine Expeditionary Force Band during the annual Reunion of Honor Ceremony on Iwo To, Japan, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1995.
In the early morning hours before the ceremony, on special request, the band played a special, unplanned performance of the song.
“Getting out there at the crack of dawn was really cool,” Ortiz said. “The weather was beautiful, very tropical.”
In addition to the ceremony, the band also played on multiple islands, and additionally had time to walk along the beach and explore.
“It was eerie,” Ortiz recalled. “It was a haunting experience, but at the same time that was the most real experience as far as realizing that I was a Marine. Walking up on the sand, you take a step and you’re almost up to your knees in the volcanic ash and you think about what these Marines went through, it was just unbelievable.”
Long before joining the Marine Corps, Ortiz began playing trumpet at age 8. A native of New York City, Ortiz grew up in the Bronx, N.Y. In fourth grade, his school administered a music test, which only he and one other child passed with flying colors.
The school in turn offered them music lessons, and a choice of instruments. Ortiz chose to play the trumpet. As a child, he watched a man play the trumpet in church, and grew fond of the instrument.
“It always just fascinated me watching him play,” he said.
Ortiz’s family relocated to Florida years later, and by the age of 18, he was working in various venues, performing music. His performances piqued the interest of a Marine Corps recruiter, who encouraged him to audition for the Marine Corps Music Program.
Ortiz auditioned and enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1983, which he called a “hard left turn” in his career. Upon hearing his decision, Ortiz’s parents had mixed feelings.
“My Mom was ecstatic,” Ortiz said. “I thought my Dad was going to kill me. It was a direction I don’t think they were really anticipating.”
Since then, he has played for several bands, including the III MEF Band, Quantico Band and the U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific Band.
Master Gunnery Sgt. Mark Gleason, the band master of the MarForPac Band, has known Ortiz for several years. Ortiz was platoon sergeant to Gleason, who was a lance corporal at the time.
Gleason called Ortiz “professional.”
“Everything he does, he does with class and a very high quality,” Gleason said. “Our ability to perform certain types of music was due to the fact that he was in the band.”
Gleason remarked that Ortiz was so gifted at his trumpet playing, that on several occasions, the band specifically featured him and his section of the band during events.
However, after serving for 20 years, Ortiz was injured during training while stationed at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, and was medically retired.
As he transitioned back to civilian life, Ortiz and several friends formed a new band, Son Caribe, in 2002.
Through performing with the band, Ortiz includes a plethora of music styles, including bachata, merengue, salsa and contemporary music.
While living in New York and Tampa, Ortiz was inspired and influenced by multiple singers and bands.
To him, performers like salsa singers Andy Montanez and Ruben Blades “defined their genres in what they do.” Ortiz also admires music groups such as El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, and the New York-based group, Fania All-Stars.
Today, Ortiz lives in Honolulu and plans to graduate from Full Sail University with a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration this fall. Over the years, he has added more musical skills, including singing, and playing trombone and piano.
Though he is no longer on active duty, he continues to keep close ties with the MarForPac Band. The band has invited him to perform as a guest soloist in several events. In addition, seven of the members in Son Caribe are MarForPac Band Marines.
Though many service members eventually change duty stations and must leave the band, Ortiz said they usually find someone to take their place.
Ortiz is the currently the first musically-inclined member of his family.
Whether or not his two teenage sons will follow in his footsteps remains to be seen. But Ortiz said his eldest son recently learned how to play guitar and as a surprise, performed the first song he learned, “Happy Birthday to You,” for his father’s birthday.
“That was the best birthday present he could have ever (given) me,” he said.
“(Ortiz is) someone whom I respect,” said Ray Cruz, the assistant director of operations at Hawaii Public Radio. “(He is) a great asset to not only the community at large but the Hispanic community.”
Cruz, who has known Ortiz for more than 10 years, was the master of ceremonies at several events in which Ortiz played with his band.
When Cruz and Ortiz met in Hawaii, they found they had a great deal in common, having both grown up in New York and sharing the same cultural heritage.
With regard to Ortiz’s work with his band, Cruz said Ortiz has “a passion for anything he does” and “attention to detail.” He commented that Ortiz uses his skills as a Marine in his musical work.
Cruz also calls him the “ultimate professional,” incorporating his knowledge of the most current popular music and original songs into his performances, and reaching out to both the civilian and military community by including Marines as members of his band.
“Eddie Ortiz (leaves places) in a better condition than when he found it, for sure,” he said.
Ortiz said he hopes in the future, his band will grow and continue to raise cultural awareness through its music. Eventually, he plans to open his own recording studio. Though he occasionally takes time off from a busy band schedule to relax on a boat in Kaneohe Bay, it seems he hardly needs rest for something he loves.
“(Music has) always been a dominant part of my life,” Ortiz said. “It’s what I enjoy doing. I feel blessed that my job is to make music. I don’t feel like it’s a job, it’s just what I do.”
For aspiring musicians and current Marines, he offers the same advice.
“Play because you enjoy playing,” he said. “Don’t play to get rich. If people like what they hear, the second part will follow. But you have to enjoy what you’re doing.”